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Dinton

Dedication : St Peter                               Simon Jenkins: Excluded                 Principal Features : One of England’s finest Norman doorways

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Like its neighbour at Stone, Dinton Church is Norman in origin. Both have Norman sculptures which are not only of national importance but arguably of Europe-wide importance. Stone Church houses the font from Hampstead Norreys. Dinton has its south doorway. Along with the tympanum at Pitsford in Northamptonshire, these make up the trio of Norman sculptures that were the catalyst for the ground-breaking research of the late Mary Curtis Webb.

There was a church of Anglo-Saxon origin at Dinton in AD1070. We know that the manor and church were granted by William the Conqueror to his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux – a very big Norman cheese indeed. That church was surely a wood and thatch structure, since nothing of it remains.

The church as we see it today was started in AD1140 and the fabulous – I use the word in its literal as well as metaphorical sense – south doorway dates from that time. It was a two-celled church of nave and chancel with tiny lancet windows typical of the period.

It was almost entirely rebuilt in the thirteenth century. The chancel we see today dates from that time although it has since been extended eastwards. The east window, although of characteristic Early English triple lancet design is modern. The lancet windows in the north and south walls appear to be original, however. So too the chancel arch and the uncharacteristically blocked priest's door on  

the south side.

The south aisle - there is none on the north side - dates from around 1230 and has a five bay arcade. This caused the south door to be relocated to the new south wall. The aisle has a squint at its east end that would have given a view of the high altar as it was positioned at that time.

More work was done in the fifteenth century. the south porch was added

The old chancel has been considerably extended. Rectangular windows were installed in the clerestory and south aisle.

A south aisle was added in 1230. This led to the south doorway being re-located from the nave wall to the new aisle wall. The original Norman chancel arch replaced by today’s Early English one. The west tower is a noble one and built in about 1340. As with the south door, the original west door was taken down and relocated to the new west front.

So to the south doorway. As you enter the porch it hits you right between the eyes: complete, original and elaborate. The tympanum draws the eye first. The first thing to note is the quality of the carving. Compare it with those you can see on this in Derbyshire and Cambridgeshire, for example. Two fabulous creatures - possibly Lion-asps - flank a tree, fruits in both of their mouths. What can this mean? Mary Curtis Webb was able to decipher it as a reference to Pope Gregory's influential "Moralia in Job". Gregory compared the "life of the righteous" with a palm - "despised below but beautiful above". The two beasts are tempters. They have no teeth because man has not yet succumbed to their temptations.

The lintel is a representation of Jesus slaying the devil in the form of Leviathan - the "Ransom Theory of the Salvation of the World". You can see similar iconography on these pages at Ault Hucknall (Derbyshire), St Bees (Cumbria), Southwell Minster (Notts) and Hoveringham (Notts). This too is a representation from the "Moralia in Job". On the right is the Winged and Laughing Christ". Leviathan is taking the bait in one of Christ's hands - a wriggling worm in this case - while the butt of Christ's cross is ready to slay Leviathan after which He will ascend to Heaven on his wings. The representation of Christ is idiosyncratic. Elsewhere, such as at Ault, he is a more martial figure. Leviathan, however, is characteristically cartoon-like with his long, whale-like back end and gaping jaws. Pevsner's interpretation of this scene, by the way, was of St Michael slaying the Dragon and he was just wrong.

There is an inscription between the lintel and the bottom of the tympanum: "+ Premia Pro Meritis si Q(u)is Desp(er) Et Habenda Audiat Hic prec(e)pta Sibi Qve Si(n)t Retinenda +". The Church Guide translates it thus: "If anyone despairs of reward according with his merits Let him listen to precepts, and let them be observed by him". What is very bizarre is that only half of the inscription is properly visible. From "audiat" onwards the inscription faces the sky and can be seen only with much difficulty and read only with the aid of a ladder. Nobody knows why.

Stone Church, only two miles away, houses the font originally located at Hampstead Norreys. Dinton’s south doorway and Stone’s font were two of the three artefacts that provoked Mary Curtis Webb’s research.  With both churches you need to arrange access. Make sure you arrange to see both. To see one without the other would be like leaving a play during the interval.

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The magnificent Norman south door - one of England’s finest. Although our attention is rightly drawn to tympanum and lintel (of which more below), this is a near-perfect Norman composition that needs to be appreciated as a whole. Note the carved capitals above the pillars on either side. The courses of heart-shaped decorations either side of the doorway are unusual. The pillars themselves have barley sugar twists.

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The two Lion-asps take the fruits of the palm trees in toothless mouths. On the lintel a smug-looking Christ holds the bait of a worm in one hand and aims his cross towards Leviathan’s mouth with the other. Note that Christ is not represented with a halo and this is so in all of the “Ransom Theory” representations. Although he has a somewhat nugatory pair of wings, Leviathan’s long whale-like body and his horizontal posture clearly denote a sea creature and not a dragon. Between the lintel and the tympanum the first half of the inscription can clearly be read. The other half can just be discerned but not read, Around the outside of the tympanum is a characteristic piece of interlaced carving. Just about visible is a similar decorative device on the underside of the lintel.

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Top Left: From this view of the lintel you are just able to make out the second half of the inscription. Middle Left: The interlaced carving on the underside of the lintel is uncharacteristically badly executed. Was it done in-situ? Bottom Left: The left side door capital. Top Right: Although the top of the capital is identical to that on the left side, the right hand capital is supported by a bird figure. Mary Webb says that Christ was often represented as a bird at this time but we have no way of knowing if that was what was intended here. Bottom Right: The door jamb on the right side has this rather fierce-looking monster with prominent teeth.

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Top Left and Right: The doorway decoration to left and right. Bottom Left: The winged and laughing Christ. His cross with which he will smite Leviathan looks somewhat appropriately like a battle-axe. Above the cross is a round object that Mary Webb suggests was an apple to tempt a hungry Leviathan. A worm - bait -  is represented near Christ’s left hand. Christ is shown as ostentatiously unconcerned at the approaching danger, smiling and looking towards us. This, though, is a conspicuously crude carving compared with that of Leviathan and those on the tympanum. Bottom Right: A Lion-asp consumes a fruit from teh palm. Note the forked tail and the mane.

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And so to the interior of the church at last! Left: Looking east through the Early English chancel arch. Right: The original early English windows on the north side of the chancel.

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Left: The chancel. The east window is for all the world an Early English triple lancet composition but in fact it is modern. Centre: Looking towards the west end. The organ is positioned unusually in the south west of the nave, Note the large and rather fine west window. Right: The church organ. I’m not an afficionado of church organs. In fact I rather resent (unfairly) the intrusiveness of many church organs, often obliterating chancel aisles. However, some  are undeniably fine works of craftsmanship and I rather liked this one at Dinton. I can, however, find out nothing about it.

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Left: The north side. Rectangular windows always disappoint me aesthetically but they don’t look too bad when, as here, they were installed all through along the wall rather than being just inserted amongst a wall of older pointed windows, as so often was the case. These are fifteenth century. Right: The south east. Note the blocked priest’s door and the original Early English chancel windows whose arches are contiguous with a string course. I always find that a rather attractive Early English feature.